Spousal Privilege: When Marriage Protects
Spousal privilege is the legal and policy doctrine that accords confidentiality between spouses with an aim to encourage martial harmony and to protect families. There are two types of spousal privilege: (1) testimonial privilege and (2) communications privilege. Each privilege applies in finite circumstances and requires an inquiry into the status of the marriage.
Testimonial privilege is asserted in criminal cases. In this scenario, one spouse is called to testify against another spouse in a criminal proceeding. The spouse who is being called to the stand can assert testimonial privilege and refuse to testify against the defendant spouse. At the same time, this privilege is not absolute. The witness spouse may choose to waive his or her privilege and testify anyway. This can occur even under the objection of the defendant spouse. In different jurisdictions, there are exceptions to testimonial privilege including in the case of marital rape. For the testimonial privilege to apply, the defendant spouse and the witness spouse must be married at the time the privilege is asserted.
Spousal communication privilege is asserted in both criminal and civil cases. This privilege covers words uttered and actions taken during the marriage. The totality of the circumstances must convey that the communication was intended as private. Therefore, one spouse can assert the communications privilege when asked to testify to private, confidential communications occurring during the marriage. Unlike testimonial privilege, communications privilege survives the end of the marriage. As such, a spouse can assert the communications privilege as long as the communication occurred during marriage even though the marriage has now ended in divorce or death. In the case of spousal communications, both spouses are permitted to refuse to make a disclosure. The burden is on the opposing party to prove that the words or acts were not intended as private.
Spousal Privilege in North Carolina
The spousal testimonial and communications privileges are known as common law constructions. In North Carolina, these privileges are statutory. The statutory formation may include multiple exceptions to the rules conveying that the state is more interested in other matters that may trump keeping harmony in the marital relationship. Spousal communication privilege in North Carolina is quite similar to the common law construction:
No husband or wife shall be compellable to disclose any confidential communication made by one to the other during their marriage.
However, North Carolina provides the following exception in its version of testimonial privilege:
- Criminal cohabitation or bigamy
- Assault or threats
- Trespass upon the residence of other spouse when living separately
- Abandonment or failure to provide support
- In the prosecution of one spouse for any criminal offense against the minor child of the couple or one spouse
Charlotte Divorce Attorneys
The spousal testimonial and communications privileges can appear as obscure evidentiary rules. However, in practice the assertion or lack thereof can have severe repercussions in divorce proceedings and related criminal mattress. The lawyers at Powers Landreth PLLC can advise you on spousal privilege matters and prepare you accordingly. Contact us now for a consultation.
What Is Spousal Privilege? | Rules of Evidence NC | Carolina Divorce
There are two different types of spousal privilege in the North Carolina rules of evidence. These privileges refer to a spouse’s right to refuse to provide certain evidence. The two privileges are commonly referred to as spousal testimony and marital communications.
The first type of privilege is referred to as spousal testimony. The spousal testimony privilege only operates to protect the witness-spouse in criminal cases. This means that only the witness-spouse can invoke the privilege not to testify against defendant-spouse. On the other hand, the witness-spouse can choose to waive his/her privilege and testify against his/her spouse. This privilege applies while the couple is married and ends with a couple’s divorce. NCGS 8-57 lays out specific circumstances where the spouse may be compelled to testify, but those exceptions are extremely limited (ex. prosecution for bigamy, prosecution for abandonment or child support).
The other type of privilege is commonly called marital communications. This privilege applies to all cases, criminal and civil, and protects both spouses during and after the marriage. What does that mean? Any confidential communication made during a marriage is safeguarded by the privilege. However, the communication must be made in private with the expectation of remaining private. The privilege applies to the communication even after the marriage ends. Furthermore, both spouses have the right to refuse disclosure of the communication meaning one spouse cannot waive and disclose the marital communication while the other spouse invokes the privilege. The marital communication privilege also protects certain conduct as confidential martial communication.
When it comes to divorce, the lines are blurred a bit. While divorce proceedings are not mentioned in the statute’s list of exceptions, certain communications will be admitted. For example, if the communication is made in an attempt to humiliate the other spouse, it will often be admitted.
For advice regarding your rights and privileges, contact Charlotte Family Law firm Powers Landreth PLLC at 704-342-4357.Learn More